"Swingers" Soundtrack

"Guys like you and me got to kick it here, Old-School." ---Trent in "Swingers"

"Trent" brandishes an "Old-School" martini.
"Swingers" turned out to be a pleasant surprise for Miramax Pictures in 1996: though it was classified as an "arthouse" film, it attracted enough attention to stay in theaters for months and even spawn a television show with the same title and characters. The film was a success in the video-renting market as well, and sales of the soundtrack were in the same favorable proportion.

If a documentary exists to inform the public about the modern Retro Swing movement, "Swingers" would be it. The picture is set in present-day Los Angeles, and features actors using authentic L.A. cool-speak as they visit L.A. bars, clubs, and lounges. The plot is by no means unbelievable: the central character, Mike has broken up with his girlfriend of many years, and seeks love and happiness as he cruises the city's nightlife with his friends. Mike and his friends fancy themselves a Rat Pack of the '90s with ample respect for their Swing Age forefathers: as Mike's friend Trent reminds him at a senior-citizens-filled Las Vegas casino, "guys like you and me gotta kick it here, Old-School."

And kick it Old-School they do: many a cigar is smoked, many a martini is sipped, and Mike wows his buddies with some impressive ballroom dancing. But despite the classic vices and old ways of cutting the rug, it is the film's soundtrack that most transports the viewer to another time and era: the sounds of Dean Martin, Tony Bennett, and Bobby Darin were popular in L.A. thirty years ago, but in an age of techno and grunge rock, they're something of a surprise.

"Swingers" contains another surprise, something that viewers and the movie's characters don't realize: there's not a single song on the soundtrack that could be considered Swing. Like the Doc Marten updated versions of classic black and white spectator shoes that Trent wears, the Swing in "Swingers" is a modern take on the classic musical form.

"Swingers" as Post-Swing

Of the sixteen tracks on the "Swingers" soundtrack, only six could even be confused with Swing: the rest include such genres as country, soul, ultra-lounge, and modern jazz. Of the six, three feature the vocals of such well-known singers as Dean Martin, Tony Bennett, and Bobby Darin with large back-up bands. These three men belong not to Swing music's era of 1935-1945, but of following years. The three songs were recorded in the fifties or sixties, a time when the most of the great Swing bands had broken up and popular vocalists recorded solo albums.

The bands on these songs are clearly transitory: instrumentalists hardly ever solo, instead playing quiet background figures and providing a rich chord structure to create a firm foundation for their vocalist. Two of these songs, "You're Nobody 'Til Somebody Loves You" and "I'm Beginning To See the Light" by Martin and Darin, respectively, contain massive bands with prominent string sections for a sentimental sound and to deepen the harmony. The relegation of the band to a servile status in relation to the singer certainly flies in the face of all that is Swing, and these love songs are a little too fast to be considered in the same vein as the sentimental classics of Dorsey and James.

The exception among these vocalists is Bennett, singing along with Count Basie's orchestra on With Plenty of Money and You. There are no strings, and the famous band is rightfully more or less on the same level of importance as the singer. If the other selections were too fast to be considered sentimental Swing, however, this one flies much too quickly to be considered much of any kind of Swing at all.

The other three Swing-esque songs of the "Swingers" soundtrack are the work of Big Bad Voodoo Daddy, a band that makes a pivotal cameo in the film: they are the musical entertainment that Mike and his new-found love dance to at the conclusion. Big Bad Voodoo Daddy plays the L.A. lounge and club scene today, and the success of "Swingers" and its soundtrack has inevitably boosted sales of Big Bad Voodoo Daddy's premiere self-titled album, making them, according to Down Beat magazine, "one of the best known outfits" of modern Swing. Big Bad Voodoo Daddy's retro (though not necessarily Swing) image is impeccable right down to their Chicago-gangster-style zoot suits, and they proclaim themselves the new "Kings of Swing" in everything from their music to their Retro clothing modeling features in GQ. With rising exposure, many see Big Bad Voodoo Daddy as a legitimate Swing expression.

Big Bad Voodoo Daddy as Omni-Swing

Big Bad Voodoo Daddy and their old-style shoes.
While Big Bad Voodoo Daddy draws mostly upon Swing for their cuts on the "Swingers" soundtrack, an examination of their first album (which contains none of the "Swingers" songs) reveals that the band has an extremely diverse list of genres to emulate, so diverse, in fact, that there's little evidence of Big Bad Voodoo Daddy being a Swing band at all.

The three songs from "Swingers" are the very definition of the Retro Swing band: the tempos lie between quick and ludicrously fast, the dynamics are all loud, guitar is prominent, and vocals play an crucial role. Band instrumentation is not so different from Squirrel Nut Zippers: drums, string bass, guitars, trumpet, saxophone, and trombone are all present. There are, of course, some similarities between them and the music they copy: You and Me and the Bottle Makes Three Tonight and Go Daddy-O both have the chord changes and style of main tune as some of the more playful, boppy Swing composition, and the instrumental solos have the complicated and pre-written sound over the complex harmonic structure that was so common in Swing. The ever-present singing, however, keeps Big Bad Voodoo Daddy firmly rooted in the modern: reveling in alcohol and drugs are much more common in modern music (an exception being Calloway's "Reefer Man" an other occasionally similar tunes), and the ending of "You and Me" is a touch of modern humor.

Big Bad Voodoo Daddy's full-length album from 1994 (pre-dating or arriving near the beginning of the Retro Swing movement), however, is nothing like the Swing image of "Swingers". Only three songs of nine are in a major key; the rest are dark and moody. The band sounds much more modern than before, for the guitar's role is increased and the trombone disappears from all but a few tracks. But the most striking contrast is the influence: Big Bad Voodoo Daddy embraces nearly every musical genre except Swing.

Big Bad Voodoo Daddy's album features guitar more
than almost any other instrument.
The album's most notable Swing deception is the misleadingly-titled "King of Swing". A rather creepy series of melody notes creates a definite non-Swing atmosphere, and the guitar chords which accent beats two and four are also one of the defining characteristics of ska, a punk-reggae blend with vocals and horns. The simple, laid-back tune and bass line of "Cruel Spell", as well as the simple, Miles Davis-esque muted trumpet solo, are more like modern jazz in their coolness. The addition of clarinet and trombone for a few tracks create two more influences: "Beggar's Blues" has the dirty sound of a New Orleans street band playing at a funeral procession, and "So Long, Good Bye" has the same instrumental setup and chord structure of a Louis Armstrong-era Hot band. In a final touch of modernity, "Fire" is so obviously an Elvis or Big Bopper throwback that the jazzy instrumentalists almost sound out of place.

The members of Big Bad Voodoo Daddy know for themselves that the music they produce is not entirely authentic Swing: lead singer Scotty Morris is quoted in Down Beat as having been influenced by records from the '40s, but also "X, Blasters and Los Lobos, Los Angeles-based rock bands that came to prominence in the 1980s," an influence which is particularly noticeable on the solo album. But as the band parades itself as Swing through their carefully cultivated image, the distinctions between different forms of music become blurred as more and more people search for a term to apply to this emerging musical quilt. The most convenient word is "Swing," and, just as such labeling leads to including Squirrel Nut Zippers' pre-1935 sound under the category, several musical genres become Swing along with Big Bad Voodoo Daddy.